BEN TANZER

Welcome.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you about my new essay collection Be Cool—a memoir (sort of) from Dock Street press.

 

Well, great, congratulations, truly, should we get right into the questions?

Yes, of course, soft ball questions, right, I hope.

 

Yeah, sure, anyway, so, navel-gazing…?

What?

patrick_oneil_b&w

 

My memoir: Gun Needle Spoon begins with the last years of my heroin addiction, my consequent descent into crime, primarily armed bank robbery, and my eventual incarceration. My final arrest was June 25, 1997, and I look back at the person that I was then and wonder who that person was. He certainly is not who I am today. Over the last 18 years I have worked hard to instigate such an internal psychological change. If you had told me then that I’d become a recovering drug addict, a published author and a college instructor, I would have laughed and told you, “no fuckin’ way, dude!” Heroin addiction’s mental and physical stranglehold combined with the junkie tunnel vision of procuring the drug at all costs, mentally altered me from the person I was meant to be and the direction I was heading. In 1977 I was an artistic kid at art school right as punk rock hit the radar and the music world exploded, flash-forward twenty years later, I was a semi-illiterate career-criminal facing a 25 to Life Sentence under California’s Three Strike Law, and wondering how the hell it had all turned out so wrong. Patti Smith said, “I never thought I was gonna make 30.” Well, I never thought I was going to make 21. It has been a long road to get to who and where I am now, and it makes me wonder what the “1997 Patrick” would have to say to the Patrick of today. 

PrintLast Day

San Francisco, June 25, 1997

Chunks of the doorframe fly through the air and fall on either side of me. I stand there, immobile. A hundred cops outside, some in uniform, some not, guns drawn, faces and bodies tense. A tall, heavyset blonde police officer steps forward through the doorway and smacks me in the face with the butt of her shotgun as more cops push past her and into the apartment. I lie on the floor, a foot across my throat, a knee in my groin, a shotgun and a 9mm leveled at my head.

Q: Is there a zombie Adam and Eve?

A: Yes. At least an Adam. And that, of course, would be Jesus. He is the first revenant. The first to rise from the dead and walk among us. Presumably he did not begin eating acolytes and chowing saints and lepers, but you never know. Yes, Jesus was the first zombie. If you believe in him, you believe in Z.

 

Q: How come Zombies don’t eat every part of a body before they move on to the next one?

 A: Do you eat all the toppings on your pizza, or do you pick some off? Do you always wipe your plate clean, or do you get tired of the pheasant compote in balsamic reduction after a few bites? Zombies are an amalgam of teeth, hands, gristle, and vague memories. Sometimes those memories take precedence over the logic of calorie intake.

1971: In Kindergarten, you participate in a “talent show” where you and Brian Clark lip-synch to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and the Beach Boy’s version of “Sloop John B.” You remember wondering at the time how much talent it takes to do such a thing, but somehow, you come in first. You also remember finding the words to “Joy to the World” ridiculous. Why would anyone have a bullfrog named Jeremiah who was “a very good friend of mine”? And how could that possibly relate to the world’s joy? Also, in thinking about “Sloop John B,” you, later that night, (after lip-synching to the line, “I threw up all of my grits”) ask your mother what grits are.

She tells you they’re something southern people eat.

“Yes,” you say, “but what are they?”

“They are a food,” she says. “A southern food.”

On The Locust’s next tour, we hit the East Coast and managed to get a show at a typical all-day festival featuring one crappy “play on the floor” band after another in the fine town of Who Really Cares, North Carolina. It was a clever mix of straightedge and white trash. We stuck out like a sore thumb—a beaner, a towelhead, and a couple throwbacks. Everyone thought we were total fags. And we were stuck there. We broke into a nearby church and stole a bunch of mics to ease the pain of that long, hot day. I slept in the baptismal tub for a few hours to avoid the blistering heat and humidity. But when it was time to play, it got a lot worse than we expected.

Our set was about four songs long. During the first three songs, the audience was as hostile as they could be. This shithead in front of me kept kicking the mic stand. When I went to sing, it would smack against my teeth and he’d laugh. After the third song, I told him if he did it again, I’d fuck him up. As the next song started, he kicked the mic stand and I headbutted him without missing a beat. When the song was over, I noticed blood on the floor in front of me. His girlfriend was yelling at us. Joey spat at her, Gabe gave us a four count, and we went into another song. But some people in the audience were trying to physically stop us from playing. We decided our set was over. Gabe ran outside to get some fresh air since the missing sound guy could not give us oxygen in the stage monitors. He came back to inform us our van had been vandalized. I threw off my mesh vest and started to charge outside, ready to fight, but Gabe stopped me. Apparently the brother of the guy I had headbutted punched our van’s headlight; his fist broke the glass, which slashed a major artery in his wrist. Blood spewed all over the front of the van, and the paramedics were called. It was probably good that I didn’t make it outside to fight the guy since I was only wearing hot pants and sneakers.

Our roadie went to the van to make sure it wasn’t getting completely destroyed. We packed up our gear, and tried load it into the van through the crowd. By the time we were loaded up—if you can call throwing everything in the back and hoping the doors would close “loading up”—the cops had showed up and started arresting people. There was a police helicopter in the air and police dogs on the ground. People were demanding money back for our merchandise they’d bought. Some even threw the stuff back at us. Everyone was yelling at us, but we weren’t taking their shit.

We managed to pull away from the parking lot without getting arrested or beaten up. On the drive out, a car followed us for a while, but we lost it by running a couple red lights. We ended up at some guy’s apartment in the next town over. We’d become friends with him earlier that day while trying to pass time as the plethora of crummy bands played. We woke up in the morning to find our van’s tire had been slashed. We just changed out the flat with our spare and were on our way. I never understood why someone would only slash one tire. If you really want to be a badass, you should slash all of the tires. But I suppose a badass would have just kicked our asses in person.

The tour was absurdity from there on out. Another show, somewhere upstate New York, was the same old run-of-the-mill mockery from a predictable audience. I knew that we were Jedis when some dickhead talked shit to us before we even played a note and got nowhere. Our lack of response resulted in him spitting on me for no apparent reason. As the spit dripped down my chest onto my mesh vest, I spat back without a thought. Now, this shot I took was without aim, concentration, or hesitation. It was exactly like the part in Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke blew up the Death Star. My spit went straight into this heckler’s mouth as he was leaning back, mouth open, cracking himself up after making a string of dumb comments about our band. I spun around toward my amp, amazed, tense, waiting to get socked in the head. I stood there, only a few feet from this guy, wearing my uniform, which consisted of a mesh vest with reflective stripping, hot pants, goggles, and sneakers. Nothing happened, and I then knew that the four of us Locusts had evolved.


Some of you may have become familiar with Storm Large when she was a contestant (and finalist) for lead singer on 2006’s Rockstar Supernova, which, according to Wikipedia, was “a reality television-formed supergroup consisting of drummer Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe), bassist Jason Newsted (Voivod and ex-Metallica), and guitarist Gilby Clarke (ex-Guns N’ Roses).” As many of you know, Storm has continued to build a name for herself as an independent musician, stage performer, and, soon, as a novelist. Storm’s 2009 one-woman show, Crazy Enough, which featured the song “8 Miles Wide,” was a smash hit, with all shows sold out.

On April 30, 2010, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Storm Large and TNB contributor Quenby Moone at a local taco joint here in Portland. Storm, who showed up in a pair of jeans and a well-worn white hoodie, sans makeup, was gorgeous, gregarious, generous of spirit, foul mouthed like a long-haul trucker, well-spoken, and hilarious. Storm gave me over an hour of her time, answering any question I asked with tremendous honesty peppered with frequent F-bombs. We discussed her music, sex, her recovery from a heroin addiction, growing up with a mentally ill mom, her book, the future of the publishing industry, sexism in the music industry, boob jobs, an amazingly simple recipe for pot candy, and so much more.

We frantically drive across town, time slipping away as we hit red light after red light, desperately trying to make it to our connection on time. Bobby’s converse tennis shoe slams into the gas pedal as rubber grinds into hot asphalt, the car’s screaming back wheels fishtail out of control. We have five minutes to cover ten minutes worth of miles. Time is falling into an abyss of no return. Once abundant, our precious heroin is now an elusive ghost we chase but never seem to catch. There is no dope to be found on the festering streets due to a massive police action throughout the city. The Mayor wants drug addicts eradicated and cutting off their supply was part one of his plan. Junkies everywhere are lying in a state of dope sickness, willing to do anything for a fix, just one lousy fix. We managed to find the last connection still in business and he wouldn’t wait around for a fistful of deadbeat addicts to show up. Time was a priceless commodity we couldn’t waste. Time was like fresh water to the parched throats of dying men trapped in the middle of the desert. Bobby’s screaming at other drivers as his face turns red from wanton rage. Roberto “The Gimp” is hanging on to his Rosary Beads, praying to his sweet baby Jesus to get us to the dealer in time. I’m sitting next to Bobby wondering how the fuck I ended up in this life, a life so far out of control that I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. The deep rumble of the car’s engine shatters the serene sound of rustling trees in Dolores Park as we burn by at 72 miles an hour. Cigarette smoke spins and twists out the window as withdrawal symptoms start eating away at every nerve ending in my body. It’s as if someone was taking needle nose pliers and twisting my flesh from head to toe. Bobby throws up out the window, bile sprays all over the side of his freshly waxed car. We’re all going to hell and this may well be the trip that gets us there.

Street signs and parked cars go by in a Technicolor blur as my eyes water and my vision starts to twist in daylight’s glare. My sense of smell suddenly comes back with a vengeance and everything smells like urine and human stench. I feel sick to my stomach. I have to stick it out so I think about how good the heroin will feel when it enters my opiate starved body. I hold out for the high, being so manically obsessed with relieving my pain that nothing else matters. I had been reduced to a sniveling animal, swallowed up by addiction like Jonah and the whale. My mind is spinning in a thousand directions, aching and overloaded with emotion. Nightmare upon nightmare rose to the surface of my consciousness, covering up what was left of my sanity, with a blanket of red death. I wanted to slam my fists through the windshield just to feel something other than the pain I was in. Death would have been a welcome respite to the madness I felt at that moment in time.

 

Thirty seconds and we were closing in on our designated target. In a matter of moments we see his car, a brand new gold Cadillac. Not seeing us, he starts to get into his car figuring we were a no show, which was typical of junkies. I yell at Bobby to cut him off, which Bobby manically does, nearly taking the bumper off of a car in the next lane. We make it with four seconds to spare. I jump from the car, having found renewed energy, knowing I’m that much closer to my fix. He motioned for me to get in his car and we take a drive. Bobby and “The Gimp” knew I wouldn’t burn them so they stayed put waiting for my return. Blood rushed through my veins, my heart pounding at both the prospect of getting loaded and the possibility of getting busted. After a quick exchange of cash for product, he drops me off a block away. He warns me that a winter was coming to the streets, a winter that would freeze out every stinking lowlife junkie that didn’t have a solid line on their dope. He tells me the end was near and I had better think about cleaning up, at least getting on Methadone. I thank him for the advice and shuffle back towards Bobby’s car. The agony of withdrawal burns within my chest.

 

The drive back was a little less frantic, since we didn’t want to get pulled over which risked a search of the car. Bobby wanted to pull over and shoot up in the bathroom of the Café Flore but I talked him out of it. After stopping at a corner store and getting cigarettes, alcohol and junk food, we sped off to my place. Bobby parked the car in the driveway and the three of us hustled up the thirty nine steps to my front door. After fighting for what seemed like an hour with the front door lock, we were in. My hands were shaking violently.

 

In a carefully orchestrated series of movements, comparable to a well choreographed ballet troop, we assembled the various items needed to get loaded. Bobby washes out three cups for water and fills them up, while “The Gimp rolled up little balls of cotton to use for filtering impurities out of the black tar heroin we had. I rip open a bag of fresh syringes and lay three out on my desk. Within forty five seconds the three of us were ready, assembled around the old desk. It was time to pay the devil his due.

 

I was now in my own world, Bobby and “The Gimp’ merely background noise like the traffic and sounds of the city outside my windows. I add a few drops of water into a worn spoon, watching the sticky tar forming an oily layer on the liquid’s surface. I light a match. The wooden match crackles and sparks, breaking the silence with the sound of its ignition. My hands shake as I hold it under the spoon. Soon the air fills with the sickly sweet smell of cooking heroin, causing me to gag on its alluring yet deathly scent. Large brown bubbles worked their way up to the surface, popping and hissing as the oily chunk disappeared into the mixture. Carefully, I drop the cotton ball into the squalid liquid, watching it absorb the gooey substance. The needle carefully found its way into the ball’s center as I slowly draw up the dark liquid. I hold the syringe to the light, cautiously tapping out the air bubbles. Satisfied, I place the needle on the table and take a deep breath. Tying myself off, I furiously pump my fists, forcing veins to the surface of the skin. My eyes rove across the epidermal landscape seeking out that perfect vein that would guarantee a straight shot up the mainline. Like a surgeon looking for that perfect place to make an incision, I spy the spider-like lines that cross my arms. Satisfied that I’d found the ideal candidate, I slide the needle into a vein. Time came to a crashing halt as the camera in my mind does a 360 degree pan shot of the room. Nothing else matters as the darkness falls.

 

As I draw back on the plunger, a faint trickle of crimson fills the syringe, swirling in a manic dance with the heroin. I take another deep breath, release the tie from around my upper arm and slowly push down on the plunger. After eighteen seconds the rush starts to work its way from my stomach outward. It’s as if I was suddenly lifted up on a blanket of euphoria and placed in a womb of childhood bliss. The nightmarish thoughts that ate away at my sanity just moments ago fade like a setting summer sun. Nerves that once felt like they’d been marinated in battery acid are now soothed into a state of absolute calm. All is well in the carnival sideshow that is my mind. A god-like euphoria washes over me like cool water on a scalding hot afternoon. I feel like I could do anything. I am a god again. The haggard expression on my face has melted into a blank canvas, a canvas of endless possibilities. I look in the mirror and see a man from better times, the man I used to be, not the torn up junkie I am. I fall into an endless dream of glass walls that shatter with the touch of my hand, their shards turning into diamonds that shine like stars. I fall through the troubles of my life without care. I am in that realm of the sacred high. For a moment, I walk with the gods.

 

 

From Paint It Black
concerning the aftermath of a suicide in 1980 punk rock LA.

Characters:
Josie Tyrell: art model
Pen Valadez: rock journalist
Lola Lola: art rock diva
Nick Nitro: punk guitarist, Josie’s ex.

 

bannedcov er

It all began with a fuck. What doesn’t? I fucked the wrong person; I fucked up the right one; somebody played me a song. It changed my whole life, that song. That’s why I later went to so much trouble to find the guy who wrote and sang it. His name was Jim Cassady, or at least that’s what he called himself. His real name was Eddie Brown, but he’d changed it in tribute to Jim Morrison and Neal Cassady. I’d never heard of either one before I discovered punk rock. I grew up in a small city in North Carolina where I’d never known a single soul who listened to the Doors or read Jack Kerouac. I was a jock—a varsity pitcher and All-District linebacker who dressed like a preppie and hung out at frat parties. Even in high school I was hanging out at frat parties. My girlfriend was a cheerleader. My parents were diehard Republicans. Life was good. I hated my life. Nothing ever happened in North Carolina in those days, the early eighties. I used to pray for something to happen, and I’d stopped believing in God at fourteen.

It was located in the basement of an old craftsman that had virtually no ventilation, directly across from the elementary school on Pine Street. When you walked down the stairs and into the dank space the air was hazy with dust particles that shone in the sunbeams that had bullied their way in through the highly set windows. The fractured yet cheery sunlight being the only reminder of outdoor life to the subdued musty feeling that hung in the underground quarters.

The house itself was a rundown rental: The small front yard was an odd mixture of overgrown weeds and patches of dry bare earth. Plaid couches, rescued from various dumpsters around town, littered the crooked porch of the sinking haven. Discarded empty bottles of whatever cheap alcohol someone managed to shoulder tap and smashed beer cans lay strewn about the base of the discolored sofas like barnacles. Really, the exterior appeared much like the interior, sans the heavily used and abused musical equipment and beer matted shag carpeting. The windows sat askew in their rotting wood frames like the crooked smile of a child who had just lost its first tooth. The filthy glass was covered in punk rock ooze, creating a darkened hue, that you couldn’t see in, or out of.

The film that coated the windows rendered them darker and more distorted than a carnival funhouse. Today, window tinting on cars that dark is illegal in most states. You have to find some shady-pines window tinting company, pay in cash and pay extra for it (not that I would know about doing something like that). And, though professional tinting may deflect heat better than this particular brand of shadowy slime,  I can guarantee you it isn’t made of the same self righteous matter; Mohawk grease, Knox Gelatin, raw emotion, teen angst and god only knows what other pillaged sentiment or stolen idealism.

It was the brainchild of a guy named Dave who lived in the house, along with his band-mates. He was a little older than the rest of us, he had a fire engine red mohawk and black, black eyebrows that were tweezed into long upward points at his temples. A true artist, he was the one whose ideas we all played along with. In whose eccentric projects we all partook. He was a bass player in the coolest punk band in town. I heard he once took a dare that he couldn’t swim the full length of a swimming pool with the neck of a bottle of Jack Daniels stuck up his ass. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the rest of the story, or if he made it the whole way, maybe no one ever mentioned that part. Whether he did or not, there is not a doubt in my mind that he tried his best. He was just that type of person, who, for obvious reasons, was insanely fun to hang out with.

Once your eyes adjusted to the light, or lack thereof, you could see through the dusty air to a bank of shelves along the far wall. Lining these shelves were a number of tightly sealed jars. All the jars had handwritten labels, some made of masking tape, some were just written in Sharpie directly on the glass. Upon closer inspection you realized that each of the jars contained urine. Dave’s urine. Hence the name, The Piss Museum.

Labeled, dated and sealed mason jars full of his piss. Each label told its own little story.

January 2-Tripping on acid.

February 18-Ate a side ribs.

June 23-Had gonorrhea.

June 30-Finished antibiotics.

July 25-After I had sex with my girlfriend.

July 28-Drank a case of Meister Brau.

September 9-Ate 2 pounds of bacon.

October 1-On painkillers from breaking my wrist.

October 6-Drank a gallon of apple juice.

October 9-awake for 32 hours.

Dave documented his day-to-day life, as well as more significant events by saving his own urine in jars and labeling the events that preceded each collection. There were hundreds of jars. These he kept in a separate special location on display inside his house. If you weren’t totally repulsed by the idea of The Piss Museum to begin with, and picked up the jars to examine them, all the urine was completely different. When the light from the windows hit the jars’ unusual contents you were awed at the extreme variations in color and substance. It was as though you were looking through a portal into another universe.

It’s not often that one comes across such great conceptual art that, somehow, in its own vulgarity can speak to you. There have, however, been many artists who have done works involving bodily fluids, each making their own individual statements. One that comes to mind, and makes me laugh to no end, is Piero Manzoni, that had an exhibit titled “Artist’s Shit” in 1961. It’s a series of, you guessed it, the artists shit, canned. Which he sold on par with the price of gold.

It’s anyone’s guess if the cans contain his (or anyone else’s) excrement. Does it really matter? He also had other works involving his own body matter. Balloons filled with his breath and egg shells that he marked with his thumbprints before eating them. Kiki Smith had a project like this as well. A row of large jugs that you couldn’t see through marked “tears,” “spit,” “diarrhea”  etc… Though her jugs remained empty.

In the case of The Piss Museum, we knew it was the artist’s urine filling those jars. I don’t recall any other works by Dave involving bodily fluids or excretions but this doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist. He was a devout “meatitarian” for a period, where he promoted vegetable rights and carrot love, and on occasion he would drink a substantial portion of bacon grease for an audience. He also kept a collection of photographs of all of his girlfriends when they were seven years old, which I see as another example of his unusual artistry .

The last time I saw Dave was about ten years ago. He, our mutual friend Ali, who was also an ex-girlfriend of his (that he did indeed have a picture of when she was seven), and I, met for breakfast downtown at a restaurant that hires employees based on their natal charts.  Dave had just gone back to meat after a long stint of veganism. He remained as striking, witty and true to form as my sentimental teenaged memories of him. He had retired his mohawk and was now sporting long dreadlocks and he drove a Gran Torino that had been restored to look like the one in the TV show, Starsky and Hutch, except that his was green.

I wish I could recall more of the conversations the three of us had that day as we laughed hysterically and overstayed our welcome in that semi-dilapidated oddly placed booth in the center of the restaurant. He had become a DJ and quite the wine connoisseur. He gave me some great recommendations for red wines, all of which I later bought and thoroughly enjoyed.

Later that night Ali and I went to house party where Dave was spinning. The party was packed, we drank cheap keg beer and chuckled as we watched the row of groupies stand in front of his turn tables and ogle him. After the party got busted, Ali, Dave and I stood outside, tipsy and giggling pretending to be newscasters, speaking into our thumbs and trying to get interviews from the disgruntled underaged kids as they scattered from the police.

I don’t know what ever happened to The Piss Museum, if it was left for some unsuspecting landlord to find during a property walk through or thrown into boxes and left curbside for the garbage truck. Maybe it’s packed in a storage unit, napping, and will at some point, awaken in all its glory and once-again, be relit by sunbeams.

What I do know, is that there are times in your life when you look back and acknowledge the little things, the random seconds, the individuals that shaped your person and made you who you are. The moments when we find great beauty and serenity in the centered sounds of nature or are lulled into a meditative trance by the bombastic lights of Tokyo. It’s when you recall these characters and snippets that have fallen into your world like raindrops. When you acknowledge the people that have unknowingly given you the strength to create by example, that you realize; you can find an astounding amount of clarity while staring into a jar full of cloudy piss.

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